To be sold, a fine negro boy, ...

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

JH Plumb quotes (p.159) the following advert from the Liverpool Chronicle (15 December 1768) in his England in the Eighteenth Century: a study of the development of English society (Pelican Books):

“To be SOLD, A FINE NEGRO BOY, of about 4 feet 5 inches high, Of a sober, tractable, humane Disposition, Eleven or Twelve years of Age, talks English very well, and can Dress Hair in a tolerable way."

Such an advert could have been posted in a Glasgow, Bristol, London or many an other city paper in those darker days of our Enlightenment just before slavery was abolished in England [*].  I was reminded of it as I saw reports of the Edward Colston statue disappearing into the Bristol waters with a bit of human help.  A fitting end, some clearly think, to an icon of a city much of whose prosperity was built on earnings from slavery.

Initially, I only saw the image and did not know it was Colston and Bristol.  My reaction, because I am agin the erasing or censorship of history, was regret.  I say this largely because such censorship means knowledge disappearing and I can't see who benefits from this.  I was not surprised to discover it was Bristol and Colston, as I knew a little about the strong feeling in that city about Colston and their joint histories.  Many are now clearly happy that he's in the harbour and hope he stays there; a watery grave like that of many of the slaves who died en route to their new world.  Others want him (the statue that is) to be in a suitable museum.  The Museum of Bristol & Slavery, perhaps.

That said, my preferred solution would have been to leave the statue in situ and for the city to have commissioned a suitable monument to stand alongside it to put his record straight.  Ideally, those institutions in the city that have slave trading in their histories would have paid for it.  All this would have gone a little way to educate the public about the city's (and the UK's) involvement in slavery – which is something we remain largely ignorant of.


Plumb says that there were some 10,000 slaves in England when slavery was declared illegal by the courts in the country in 1772; most were domestic servants.  It was a long time, however, before parliament made the trade in slaves illegal.  This a topic that Paul Vare and I write about in our forthcoming book for Greenleaf: Learning, Environment and Sustainable Development: a history of ideas

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


  • (we won't publish this)

Write a response